Amherst Advances to NCAA Women's Basketball Championship for First Time with 69-59 Win

Courtesy Amherst Sports Information

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The Amherst College women's basketball team got contributions from top to bottom during its 69-59 win over Christopher Newport University, putting the Lord Jeffs in the NCAA title game for the first time in program history. The Lord Jeffs will battle Washington-St. Louis, an 87-77 winner over Ill.-Wesleyan Saturday at 8 p.m. (EST) for the 2011 NCAA Championship.

Caroline Stedman '12 (Walpole, Mass.) carried Amherst through the first half by scoring 14 points, while seniors Sarah Leyman (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Kristyn Dunleavy (East Setauket, N.Y.) combined for 22 in the second period to lead Amherst (31-1) past the Captains (29-4).

Defense and depth played significant roles for the Lord Jeffs, with Kim Fiorentino '12 (Holmdel, N.J.) and Jaci Daigneault '11 (Guilford, Conn.) each recording three blocks and a steal.

Amherst's lead hovered between two and eight points for a span of 15 minutes and 24 seconds, but the Jeffs began to pull away when Leyman converted a tough three-point play midway through the second period, bringing the score to 50-41.

From there, Dunleavy took over the game and played the best stretch of her career, as all 10 of her points came in the final eight minutes of the game. In addition to playing phenomenally on the defensive end, Dunleavy accounted for six consecutive Amherst points on two free throws, a jumper and a put-back after an offensive rebound. Dunleavy's spark gave Amherst a 56-46 advantage with only 6:03 to play.

That's when things started to fall apart for the Captains, who were held scoreless during a pivotal stretch of three minutes and 44 seconds. Jackie Renner '12 (Newton, Mass.) took over point guard duties and responded brilliantly, feeding a perfect pass inside to Daigneault for a lay-in that brought the score to 58-46 with less than 5:00 on the clock.

Christopher Newport wouldn't get its next points until knocking down one of two free throws to make it a 58-47 game with 2:38 to go. Leyman pounded the nail into the coffin when she hit an off-balanced, fall-away shot as she fell to the floor and the shot clock expired, giving her team a 13-point edge with less than two minutes to go.

The Captains were forced to foul down the stretch, but Amherst went 9-for-10 at the line in the final 1:33, with Renner going 4-for-4 and Dunleavy knocking down all four of hers as well. CNU buried a three with 12 seconds on the clock for the game's final points, as the Lord Jeffs held on for the 69-59 win to mark their first-ever win in the national semifinals.

Amherst increased its winning streak to 18 games, which has featured 17 double-digit victories. The Lord Jeffs are the fourth Division III women's team to post back-to-back 30-win seasons, a feat that was put on hold for Christopher Newport thanks to Amherst. Making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA semifinals, the Captains had their 10-game win streak come to a halt.

Chelsie Schweers '11 averaged 33.0 points in her first four NCAA Tournament games, but Fiorentino played suffocating, relentless defense to lead a charge that held the prolific scorer to 19 points on 7-of-23 shooting. The Captains entered the game leading the nation in three-point field goal percentage (.447) but shot only 27.3 percent (3-for-11) against the tough Amherst defense.

Christopher Newport scored the first five points of the game, but Stedman put Amherst on the board with a strong drive to the hole. The Captains responded by scoring the next six points, giving them an 11-2 lead with 13:29 to play in the half.

The next 13 and a half minutes featured a new Amherst team. Lem Atanga McCormick '12 (Chicago, Ill.) hit a pivotal three-pointer out of a timeout to make it an 11-5 game, followed by a Daigneault put-back, a Finucane triple from the right wing, and a great post move by Atanga McCormick, as the Jeffs suddenly held a 12-11 advantage thanks to a 10-0 run.

Amherst didn't take the lead for good until Shannon Finucane '12 (Cortland, N.Y.) drilled a three-pointer from the corner to make it a 15-13 game with 8:45 remaining in the first half. The Captains came back to tie the score at 20-20, but they would trail by three to eight points until Leyman's key three-point play midway through the second period.

Stedman led the Jeffs with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while Leyman added 14 points and fell one rebound shy of a double-double. Dunleavy pulled down five boards to go along with her 10 points in only 13 minutes of action, while Atanga McCormick chipped in with 10 points in only 14 minutes.

Daigneault (4-for-11) and Fiorentino (0-for-6) did not have their usual hot hands, but they made up for it with defense and rebounding. Daigneault finished with eight points and a team-high 10 boards, while Fiorentino helped hold Schweers to only four points through the first 18:11 of the second half. Fiorentino picked up two quick fouls in the first 1:32 of the game, but head coach GP Gromacki stuck with his top defender.

The Lord Jeffs were 0-for-9 from long range in the second period but made 19 of their 35 two-point attempts in the game (54.3 percent).

Saturday's title game will be a rematch of the 2009 and 2010 national semifinals. Washington has ended the Jeffs' title run in each of the past two years, earning a 65-49 win in 2009 before coming back to win in overtime a year ago, 86-75. The Bears are making their 10th trip to the "Final Four" and have won five national titles.